The male sopranista Brian Charles Rooney has deceived your senses.
Rooney who gender bended the role of diva Dionne Salon in the Off-Broadway rock musical, “BEDBUGS!” used to sing along on the radio with the world’s most famous singers. However, he has made a name for himself as his talents have taken him to both On and Off-Broadway stages.
“[Theater] tells stories and that’s one of the oldest forms of entertainment people had,” said Rooney. “You need to be tactful. Whenever you are involved in a show, whether you are a producer, director, writer, actor, designer; you need to bring all of your best ideas to the table and be open to being edited. Everyone’s strengths must be realized in concert. That makes a hit.”
Rooney is a New Jersey native who received a Bachelor’s of Arts in Drama and Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology from Duke University. At Duke, Rooney got to perform in musicals and also worked in the university’s world renowned medical center. However, he discovered his love of theater during high school.
“I don’t think I played any roles [in high school] where I didn’t have a dialect,” Rooney said. “I love using them. High school was where I began to learn how to use accents in performance.”
Rooney moved to New York after graduation and got cast in a theater on Long Island as Ché Guevara in “Evita,” his favorite show. In 2006 he made his Broadway debut in “The Threepenny Opera” as Lucy Brown. The show also starred singer Cyndi Lauper. No one before had ever played the role of Lucy quite like Rooney.
“To be able to play that part, first of all, was something that no other man has done and probably never will, I assume,” recalled Rooney. “It was a rare opportunity and I loved it. It was the first time I was hired to sing as a male soprano. I worked with a lot of amazing people and it was a very easy process. It was a challenging piece but the people working on it were serious about what we doing and were very warm and approachable.”
Rooney always preferred to listen to female singers growing up and while on Broadway, he decided to research how he was able to sing so high. He learned that there was a small set of men able to sing notes past the tenor range. They are known as male sopranists or sopranistas. A common similarity between these men is that they usually have some sort of endocrine problem such as diabetes or thyroid issues. Rooney himself is a Type 1 diabetic.
“For me, because I didn’t really have lessons in college, singing with CD’s was my training,” said Rooney. “I’d sing along with shows — a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber. [I was] constantly trying to sing all the parts regardless of their gender. That was part of what capitalized on whatever it is physiologically about me that is different than other people vocally. Countertenors sing completely in falsetto. I only sing falsetto at the very bottom of my soprano range. Everything else is full voiced. I found out, while working on ‘The Threepenny Opera,’ that I was a Tenor Based Sopranist.”
Dale Joan Young, Producer of “BEDBUGS!” has known Rooney for a significant amount of time but still is enraptured by his voice.
“Whenever I hear him sing, I always feel like I want everybody else to hear him,” Young said. “I love theater but I have never been as moved by any actor as I have been by singers. There has never been a play that has reached me in the same way. I have favorite plays but musicals get to my heart right away if they’re good.”
Young also had a lot on her plate as she prepared for her own role as Producer of the BEBUGS! musical.
“There are lots and lots of little details,” said Young. “I hope that everybody enjoy it as much as I do. I was more excited than nervous because I can’t think of a night where I didn’t have friends come see the show. Every night I was getting to see people who I really cared about and this was the first show for which I was lead producer. It was thrilling for me.”
Rooney doesn’t have a preference as to which he prefers – theater or singing – but recognizes that there are palpable differences between the two crafts.
“When I do a play, it’s almost less stressful because there seems to be so much less work,” said Rooney. “I don’t have to worry about musical cues, and how they affect everything from performance to light and sound cues. That’s not to say that performing in a play without songs is easy. You have a lot more to do and worry about when you’re in a show with songs.”
To transform Rooney into “BEDBUGS’” Dionne Salon every night before show time was lengthy. However, he finds the preparation to be the most relaxing part of the drag process.
“It’s usually an hour and a half to two hours because I don’t like to rush and it’s time consuming,” said Rooney. “I don’t like to sit around and wait. It tends to make me restless and kind of nervous but I enjoy the prep time because it provides me a chance to focus, and leave the real world at the stage door.”
For the near future, Rooney would like to become more and more “commercially viable and successful.” He has dreams of winning a Tony Award one day due to the validation it provides and the opportunities it presents. Also, winning a Tony would enable him to promote other people’s work as well.
Rooney is thankful for projects that allow him to take a new character and shape them into what he feels is genuine.
“I much prefer working on a new character and not making a lot of money, at least initially, than going in as a replacement for a character who’s been played by many other actors,” Rooney said. “Sometimes, when you replace an actor, especially in a successful show, you are told to follow what was done before as closely as possible. To me, that’s not as exciting as being able to create a character on stage for the first time. That’s what I love.”
Although Rooney is mostly confident on stage, he feels nerves can be transcendent to an audience and enable them to experience something bigger than they ever expected.
“I’ve been told ‘don’t trust an actor who doesn’t get nervous at some point,’” said Rooney. “If an actor is never nervous, they’re not vulnerable and I think vulnerability is probably the biggest tool you have on stage. I think it’s what people respond to. Being vulnerable and honest is powerful. There’s no apology for what you’re doing on stage when you are honest.”